Oh, Say Can You See?

As the National Park Service celebrates its 105th birthday, we're reflecting on our long history tending to the natural wetlands at Fort McHenry, Baltimore's beloved national park.

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In September 1814, during the War of 1812, as an armada of British Royal Navy ships hovered just off the coast of Baltimore, a young attorney and part-time poet named Francis Scott Key watched as artillery shells exploded overhead while scrappy American troops successfully kept what was then the most powerful navy in the world at bay, fighting valiantly and fending off British invasion from Baltimore's star-shaped military stronghold, Fort McHenry. This conflict—which came to be known as the Battle of Baltimore—inspired Mr. Key to pen the poem that would become the lyrics to the Star-Spangled Banner, and the history of Baltimore, its fort and our nation were forever changed.

Now, more than 200 years later, the National Aquarium carries the flag for protecting Baltimore's shoreline in our own way, as the partner organization responsible for tending, preserving and maintaining the 10-acre salt marsh wetland space buffering the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine property maintained by the National Park Service from the Patapsco River.

Although most Baltimoreans and visitors probably give it little thought, the Fort McHenry wetland is one of the few sections of natural shoreline in Baltimore City. The wetland, like the National Aquarium, was developed in the mid-1980s when it was created from dredged materials to mitigate the environmental impacts resulting from the construction of the Fort McHenry Tunnel. In fact, during very low tidal cycles, the Fort McHenry Tunnel is visible underwater from the Fort McHenry wetlands.

Volunteers wade in the marsh grasses at the Fort McHenry wetlands during a cleanup event.

Wetlands serve several vital environmental functions throughout our region around the Chesapeake Bay. They filter pollutants, help to control flooding and erosion, provide critical habitat for one-third of all birds native to Maryland, and serve as nursery grounds for the finfish and shellfish species that supply our regional fishing industries. However, nestled where it is, adjacent to Baltimore's bustling Inner Harbor, the city's busy shipping channels and the Port of Baltimore, keeping the wetland healthy, fully functional and free of debris requires hard work and year-round commitment.

That's where our field conservation team comes in. Since 1999, the National Aquarium has been hard at work undertaking the restoration and maintenance projects that sustain and improve the health of the wetlands as the official partner of the National Park Service, which operates the historic fort buildings, visitors center and rolling green lawns that lead down to the waterfront. The wetlands themselves are actually owned by C. Steinweg Group—an international logistics provider that plays a major role in the commerce taking place within the Port of Baltimore—which permits the Aquarium free rein over the wetlands, striking a mutually beneficial arrangement for all parties involved.

National Aquarium volunteers at a Fort McHenry Field Day event walk away pushing wheelbarrows
Volunteers get to work on the 10-acre Fort McHenry wetland.

In our official capacity at the wetlands, the Aquarium field conservation team spends time on-site every week—and welcomes hundreds of local students and volunteers each year to explore and lend a helping hand in our conservation efforts. Our maintenance work includes regular cleanups and debris mitigation, as well as maintenance of three trails that allow our team and visitors access to the wetlands.

On these trails, the conservation team makes use of trail cameras to keep an eye on the conditions on the trails—and to sneak a peek at the animals who make their home in the wetlands. Each of four cameras can run for a week or two at a time and, along with our team’s in-person observations, the camera footage allows us to monitor the species that come and go as seasons change on the wetland—and there are a lot of species to spot!

According to Conservation Aide Langston Gash who serves as the lead on much of our hands-on conservation activity at Fort McHenry, the biodiversity at the wetlands is extensive with groundhogs, raccoons, a residential red fox and river otters regularly visible. "We do see the same species—and sometimes the same individual animals—returning to the wetlands seasonally or making their year-round homes there," Langston notes. The wetlands are also home to a beautiful array of migrating aquatic birds, including cormorants, blue herons and osprey, which return to roost year after year.

Praying Mantis on a Glove at Fort McHenry Field Day
The wetlands boast impressive biodiversity, from aquatic life to migrating birds, mammals and insects like the praying mantis seen here.

Below the waterline, a thriving community of fishes and aquatic life abound. White perch, silversides, striped bass, needlefish and pipefish are all present. The wetlands have even been graced by a horseshoe crab! This diversity of life speaks to the health of the wetlands that, while initially manmade, are now a complete natural ecosystem.

While there is not general public access to the delicate wetlands, it would be a shame to keep them all to ourselves. Students taking part in our AquaPartners program are frequent guests, as well as Baltimore City Public Schools students ages 13 and up who come to the wetlands to take part in paddle programs. These expeditions—made possible through a partnership between Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks, Living Classrooms and the National Aquarium—allow youth to kayak throughout the wetland, exploring and learning about this special place and the bountiful biodiversity that exists just out of sight here in Baltimore City.

AquaPartners students participate in a Fort McHenry cleanup
Students taking part in the National Aquarium's AquaPartners program tidy up the wetland.

If you would like to see for yourself, the wetlands are visible from the one-mile paved walking loop at the edge of Fort McHenry's grassy lawns. For a closer look, you can volunteer to take part in one of our scheduled cleanups or field days, like one coming up on November 13, 2021. The National Park Service also hosts escorted birding walks through the wetlands at regular intervals.

If you do make it to the Fort McHenry wetlands for a look around, take a moment to absorb the confluence of city and nature and consider the remarkable continuity of the historic shoreline at Fort McHenry—a monument to Baltimore's resilience—now serving as a hopeful peek into the city's future where our urban treasures can coexist seamlessly with the natural world.

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